Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

Not So Super and Not Very Freaky: Review of Superfreakonomics

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At the checkout at Borders bookstore last week, I eagerly paid for my copy of Superfreakonomics, the follow up book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner to their 2004 smash hit, Freakonomics. I dashed through the explanatory note, enjoying their typical irreverence and humor.

By the way, irreverence, in business life, too often gets a bad name. People too often are too reverent of those with more grandiose titles, or who sit on certain boards, or who appear in the society and party pages of the local newspaper. Some of those leaders, no doubt, are capable, even excellent, in fulfilling their duties. But too often, as we have learned over the last year, those in charge have no better idea of what’s going on than we do. In fact, they may have a worse idea.  People who do not buy into the corporate line (drink the proverbial kool aid) can, in fact, provide some of the greatest services to an organization, by challenging the conventional wisdom, status quo and accepted practices.

Indeed, Levitt and Dubner are at their best when at their most irreverent. They poke holes in the demi-religion called environmentalism (while giving both sides of the climate change argument a hearing); question the innate altruism of humans; and examine the role of the law of unintended consequences in such sacred cows as the Americans with Disabilities Act and child safety seats. The book contains some instructive new analyses – on ER doctors’ effectiveness; sanitation problems in late 19th century New York; and Ian Horsley, the banker turned terrorist hunter.

However, in spite of these examples of their unique perspective, on the whole this book falls flat. Too often, they rely on stale stories and twice-told analyses. Cases in point: they reiterate the stories of 1964 Kew Gardens murder, the prisoners’ dilemma research and how month of birth often determines success in professional sports. These examples have appeared in numerous books, studies and articles.

This retread over previously trod ground disappoints especially because their first book, Freakonomics, shocked readers with its unique approach, findings and perspective. It also poked holes in some tenets of conventional modern political and organization practice, such as the broken window theory. That analysis was conveyed through unique stories and examples; when stories already addressed by others were included, it was to offer an entirely different twist on them.

No doubt Levitt and Dubner have much to offer the business world, economics and policymakers. Freakanomics created a groundswell of dialogue on numerous issues, ranging from crime to abortion; responses came thick and fast and much good came from that dialogue. It is a pity they did not wait until they had enough new material to stir up another such dialogue. While it contains some useful new thoughts, on the whole, it was a lackluster follow up to their first work. Rather than reading Superfreakonomics, spend that time re-reading Freakonomics.


Written by Russell S.

November 23, 2009 at 3:46 am

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